Tough on Israel

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

ONE OF THE MORE striking results of the Obama administration's first six months is that only one country has worse relations with the United States than it did in January: Israel. The new administration has pushed a reset button with Russia and sent new ambassadors to Syria and Venezuela; it has offered olive branches to Cuba and Burma. But for nearly three months it has been locked in a public confrontation with Israel over Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. To a less visible extent, the two governments also have differed over policy toward Iran.

This week a parade of senior U.S. officials has been visiting Jerusalem to tackle the issues: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell, national security adviser James L. Jones and senior aide Dennis Ross. But the tensions persist, and public opinion is following: The Pew Global Attitudes Project reported last week that Israel was the only country among 25 surveyed where the public's image of the United States was getting worse rather than better.

In part the trouble was unavoidable: Taking office with a commitment to pursuing Middle East peace, Mr. Obama faced a new, right-wing Israeli government whose prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has refused to accept the goal of Palestinian statehood. In part it was tactical: By making plain his disagreements with Mr. Netanyahu on statehood and Jewish settlements, Mr. Obama hoped to force an Israeli retreat while building credibility with Arab governments -- two advances that he arguably needs to set the stage for a serious peace process.

But the administration also is guilty of missteps. Rather than pocketing Mr. Netanyahu's initial concessions -- he gave a speech on Palestinian statehood and suggested parameters for curtailing settlements accepted by previous U.S. administrations -- Mr. Obama chose to insist on an absolutist demand for a settlement "freeze." Palestinian and Arab leaders who had accepted previous compromises immediately hardened their positions; they also balked at delivering the "confidence-building" concessions to Israel that the administration seeks. Israeli public opinion, which normally leans against the settler movement, has rallied behind Mr. Netanyahu. And Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which were active during the Bush administration's final year, have yet to resume.

U.S. and Israeli officials are working on a compromise that would allow Israel to complete some housing now under construction while freezing new starts for a defined period. Arab states would be expected to take steps in return. Such a deal will expose Mr. Obama to criticism in the Arab world -- a public relations hit that he could have avoided had he not escalated the settlements dispute in the first place. At worst, the president may find himself diminished among both Israelis and Arabs before discussions even begin on the issues on which U.S. clout is most needed. If he is to be effective in brokering a peace deal, Mr. Obama will need to show both sides that they can trust him -- and he must be tough on more than one country.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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